As parents of adolescents have always known (even before science proved it), the brain doesn't fully develop until the early 20s. "Because adolescents have this wild, uninhibited hypothalamus [the primitive do-what-feels-good-now part of the brain], and a rather immature prefrontal cortex [the more rational what's-best-for-the-long-term part]," says Nunley, "they're not the best decision makers." Those immature minds meet hyper-hormonal bodies, and you've got online videos of kids beating each other up in the school yard and the like. In other words, the mouse gets clicked long before the brain actually kicks in.
Personality-wise, quick changes and hairpin turns are the norm for teens and tweens, and it's perfectly developmentally appropriate for them to play around, discovering what their tastes, interests, and values are. "As children begin dealing with core identity issues, they need ways to show the world that they have something of value to offer," says Eugene C. Roehlkepartain, senior adviser of the Search Institute in Minneapolis. Teens are using every tool available, and they're creating new personas based on the flood of information -- especially from the Internet and reality TV.Where Do We Go from Here?
Even though moms and dads live on Earth and kids live in cyberspace, we're still their parents. Once we understand why they're succumbing to the meaner opportunities provided by online communities and video-sharing sites, we can begin to counteract those forces. The key, says Dr. Zodkevitch, is to deal with the underlying issues. "Ask yourself, do your kids need more ways to feel worthwhile?" he says. "Can you provide other options for them to experiment with finding out who they are?" By redirecting them into smarter means of self-expression and teaching them what really matters, we can keep our kids and their online adventures within the bounds of common sense.